Home > News > The Power of Pelosi
160 views 9 min 0 Comment

The Power of Pelosi

- May 26, 2010

In my previous post, I made the case that Speaker Pelosi played an important and influential role in the passage of health care reform. But why exactly was Pelosi so influential? What is the secret to her influence in the House, and does it tell us anything about leadership in Congress more generally?

Let me begin with what I suspect most people consider the quintessential model of a powerful congressional leader: Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (here pictured famously pressing his case to a fellow Senator, Theodore Green of Rhode Island).


While Johnson was a legendary Senate majority leader – perhaps best chronicled in Robert Caro’s wonderful book Master of the Senate – his aggressive, at times commanding, approach to winning votes was unusual (and, in today’s Congress, almost certainly not replicable). Party leaders, including speakers, can be quite powerful without necessarily having to do things the Johnson way.

Below are four reasons I think Pelosi is able to exercise so much influence in the House, not only on health care but on many other matters. I welcome readers who disagree or find the list incomplete to offer their own.

1. Formal powers. The rules of the House and the majority party give the speaker considerable formal authority. Her powers include deciding which committee(s) bills are referred to; appointing members of conference committees; chairing (and naming many members of) the party committee which decides committee assignments; and nominating members of the powerful Rules Committee. Many of these powers were granted to the speaker starting in the 1970’s (as documented by Barbara Sinclair, among others), giving Pelosi advantages that many of her predecessors never had.

But while important, formal powers have, I would argue, been greatly overstated as the source of Pelosi’s influence. After all, a speaker has to be willing to use those powers (and not all have), and some speakers have tried but struggled to use them effectively (see e.g. Tip O’Neill in 1981 or Newt Gingrich in his final two years as speaker).

What matters more – what I believe is really the key to what makes speakers powerful – is the same thing that Richard Neustadt famously observed about presidents: their ability to persuade. Formal power may translate into favors or chits that can be traded for votes (e.g. “vote for health care, and the next spot on the Appropriations Committee is yours”), but not all votes can be as easily “bought,” and some may not even need to be.

In this regard, there are two common misconceptions about leadership in Congress, both based on our collective image of Lyndon Johnson. One is that strong leaders don’t persuade: they command. Yes, Johnson did once yell at a Senator, “Change your vote!” (The Senator, J. Allen Frear of Delaware, then did so.) But legislators, like anyone, almost never respond well to being bossed around. The other misconception is that persuasion involves negative tactics (e.g. leaning into a colleague’s face). Sometimes, yes; but what made Lyndon Johnson a master at persuasion was that he knew which tactics worked best for particular situations and could use them equally well. As Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described it, Johnson’s “tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat…It ran the gamut of human emotions” (Evans and Novak 1966, 104).

This takes us to the second source of power for congressional leaders, including Pelosi: personal traits.

2. Personal traits. I’ve never been (un)fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of Pelosi’s persuasive skills, but I’ve heard of or seen two (both admittedly on the negative side). Pelosi often talks about her “mother of five” voice, which I can only imagine is quite intimidating. And she has the ability to scold without saying a word, as she demonstrated when Congressman Joe Wilson famously yelled “you lie” at President Obama during an address to Congress. Watch her reaction when Wilson makes his remark (starting at the 0:16 mark).

3. Close alliances. Powerful speakers are never alone; they have protégés, allies, and/or mentors who lend them support, advice, and information. Sam Rayburn, for instance, could count on help with gathering votes and information from John McCormack (the party’s long-time majority leader) and protégé Richard Bolling. Lyndon Johnson had what Evans and Novak called the “Johnson Network”: a small group of Senators whom “Johnson could count on…for help” and which “was the source of Johnson’s power” (Evans and Novak 1966, pp. 95-96).

Pelosi herself has a close coterie of allies, including Californians George Miller and Anna Eshoo, who provide advice and will whip members on her behalf if needed. Until his recent death, she also had a close alliance with John Murtha of Pennsylvania (pictured below), a long-time mentor of hers who was an important bridge to more senior and conservative members of her caucus.


By contrast, “loner” speakers can run into serious difficulties. Speaker Jim Wright, described by John Barry in his book The Ambition and the Power as a more solitary leader, was sometimes too suspicious of his party’s whip to rely on his whip counts, and Wright found himself dangerously isolated when he came under an ethical cloud of suspicion (which ultimately led to his early resignation).

4. Reputation. I’m quite certain that Tom Delay, former GOP whip and majority leader, was thrilled to acquire the sobriquet “The Hammer;” it doubtless made many Representatives think twice before turning down a request for help from him. (Few remember or realize that the nickname was originally coined to describe only his assertive fundraising skills, not his style as party whip.) Pelosi is known for being unforgiving towards those who cross her or who are disloyal. Fair or not, it’s probably a very useful reputation to have when seeking the help of lawmakers or asking for their votes.

A reputation does not have to be negative to be a source of power. Not many realize that Delay won the loyalty of his colleagues by providing food in the Republican cloakroom during late-night sessions (as noted in Peter Baker’s excellent book on the Clinton impeachment, The Breach). Pelosi also provides victuals to fellow lawmakers – she famously starts meetings by declaring “first, we eat” – but, in addition, she has cultivated an image of being a tireless supporter for her partisan colleagues. Many can recount the story of Pelosi flying all the way to Hawaii in order to make an appearance at a fellow Democrat’s fundraiser.

Furthermore, as the old saying goes, the perception of power is power. Regardless of whether Pelosi’s leadership on health care reform was truly historic or impressive, all that matters to Pelosi is that people think that it was – for that can only improve her reputation for power, and thus make her more powerful.

No one, of course, is invulnerable – Pelosi included. In my next (and final) post, I’ll discuss some possible weaknesses of the Pelosi speakership, and what the future might hold for Pelosi and the office of Speaker in general.

Next Post: The Future of the (Pelosi) Speakership